Iowa Labor Collection To Digitize 1,200 Oral Histories

Sep 4, 2017

More than 1,200 interviews documenting Iowa’s labor history are set to be digitized and will be available online sometime next year, making the Iowa Labor Collection one of the most comprehensive labor oral history achieves in the nation. 

Packinghouse workers in Mason City, circa 1948.
Credit Iowa Labor Collection, State Historical Society of Iowa

Coal mining, meat packing, and tire and rubber manufacturing were all important industries that drew people away from farms and into Iowa’s cities during the 20th century. That’s according to Mary Bennett, the special collections coordinator at the State historical Society of Iowa, who says digitizing these interviews about Iowa’s union and labor history is crucial, since reel-to-reel tapes tend to deteriorate. 

"These are all important stories to have an understanding of our state’s history in a complete way, instead of making stereotypical assumptions like everyone is a farmer," she explains. 

These oral histories were first conducted in the mid-1970s, but the collection continues to grow. Recent interviews include immigrant workers from countries like Rwanda, Somalia and Guatemala who work in Iowa’s construction and hospitality industries.    

Workers after winning union vote at the Allis Chalmers farm equipment plant in the Quad Cities.
Credit Iowa Labor Collection, State Historical Society of Iowa

"The oldest interview is someone who was born in 1876, so when he’s being interviewed, he’s talking about the 1920s for example," says Bennett. "We have other people who were born in the 1950s who are being interviewed to tell us what is going on in the 1990s. So it really gives you almost a 100-year on labor in our state."

In addition to oral histories, the collection includes transcripts, photos, records, letter, diary entries, newspaper articles and TV news film. Some of these written materials and images have been digitized as well.